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Les diaboliques (1955)
No Threat to Hitchcock
"Diabolique" and "Psycho" were groundbreaking sensations in their day. Time has only slightly chiseled away at "Psycho's" effectiveness, while "Diabolique's" flaws stand out more than ever before. Its leisurely pace allows viewers to ponder the inconsistencies and implausibilities of the plot. The scant musical score leaves some very dry passages. You have to wonder why any parent would send their son to such a seedy, poorly run boarding school. And that retired police inspector who insinuates himself into the action toward the end is a nuisance. The film would have been better had his character been cut entirely and the killers gotten away with their crime. And a note to today's women: You don't need long hair and short skirts to look sexy; Simone Signoret here is smoking hot!!!
Pasqualino Settebellezze (1975)
An Important Film, But No Masterpiece
What fails to make "Seven Beauties" the masterpiece many reviewers are alleging is the uneven tone of the film. Important moral issues are juxtaposed in grotesque and vulgar sequence. Our "hero" is fatally flawed from the beginning; he learns very little from his tribulations. Attempts at comedy feel forced and out of place. The intriguing opening montage with its wry narration sets a mood that is quickly discarded. Despite all of this, "Seven Beauties" succeeds in hammering its message thanks to several well-observed scenes featuring Shirley Stoler and Fernando Rey. But it's Giancarlo Giannini's show all the way and his performance is fearless. Don't approach this film expecting to be entertained. Come hungry for food for thought.
Portnoy's Complaint (1972)
A misguided attempt by some very talented people who should have known better.
Even the esteemed screenwriter Ernest Lehman could not write a script and direct a film of "Portnoy's Complaint." Philip Roth's internalized monologue of a book defies such a transition. After more than half a century, Roth's novel still sparkles, while this film was dead on arrival in 1972 and remains best forgotten.
So Fine (1981)
A miscast Ryan O'Neal, doing his "What's Up, Doc?" befuddled professor shtick, inadvertently creates a sensation with his see-through jeans in this crazy mix of New York garment district denizens, stuffy academicians, gangsters, and opera singers. The gags are hit-and-miss but funny nonetheless. Great performances by Jack Warden, Fred Gwynne, Richard Kiel (doing his James Bond character, "Jaws"), and a very game Mariangela Melato. Enough laughs to make searching out this long forgotten film worthwhile.
The Nutcracker (2009)
This is my favorite production of "Nutcracker" and I've seen many, both live and recorded. I admit that I no longer have patience to sit through most of Act One. I start at the Waltz of the Snowflakes and take it from there. What makes this performance so outstanding are the two principal dancers, Miyako Yoshida and Steven McRae. They're a great physical match and work so well together, neither one upstaging the other. They simply glide flawlessly on their toes and through the air, spinning on one leg, making it all look so easy. This video is nicely produced with sharp images and excellent editing, allowing the viewer to see full body dancing with occasional glimpses of closeups. Superb orchestration, costumes, scenery, corps de ballet, etc.
New York Stories (1989)
Don't Let "Zoe" Spoil The Fun
The general consensus about this film is accurate: Scorsese's "Life Lessons" and Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks" are quite brilliant, while Coppola's "Life Without Zoe" is God-awful. Watch this film on DVD and just skip the middle "Zoe" segment. "Life Lessons" is perhaps Scorsese's best film, full of directorial flourishes (occasional slow motion and short, dream-like segments) that add emotional depth to an already fine script. Performances are pitch-perfect as are setting and wardrobe. An incredible piece of filmmaking that stands up well to repeat viewings. "Oedipus Wrecks" is classic Woody Allen, here venting his neuroses about the smothering, castrating effects of the Jewish mother. It's played for laughs, of which there are many. Also notable is a great performance by the incomparable Mae Questel, whose voice will be familiar to anyone who's ever heard Betty Boop. Lots to like about these two short, clever entertainments.
13 Frightened Girls (1963)
Shocking - For All The Wrong Reasons
I'm still scratching my head over this one. This is a William Castle movie? I expected a hokey horror film along the lines of his entertaining cheesefests like "The Tingler" or "Homicidal." Instead what we have here is a third-rate children's Disney adventure with cast and soundtrack to match. None of Castle's reliable stable of writers and musicians seem to have participated. Castle somehow managed to attract decent character actors - Murray Hamilton ("The Graduate"), Hugh Marlowe ("All About Eve"), Norma Varden ("Strangers On a Train"), but they all look like they're taking part in Amateur Night In Dixie. You have to see this movie to believe how awful it is.
The Trollenberg Terror (1958)
Fans of 1950s science fiction films will get a kick out of "The Crawling Eye," especially if you remember seeing it as a child. It made quite an impression at the time. Today's audiences will find its low budget effects far too cheesy. What it has going for it is a cozy setting in the Swiss Alps (though that too is fake) and a straightforward plot. It's a pleasant enough diversion if you enjoy this type of thing.
The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)
The guessing game of who's who under the makeup is largely irrelevant today, since the younger generation barely even knows who these stars were (and if they do, they couldn't care less). What we're left with is a very entertaining, atmospheric and well-crafted mystery story, filmed in glorious black and white, with a fine score by Jerry Goldsmith. Does it get better than that? Though the mystery is rather thin, it doesn't take away from the enjoyment of watching the gorgeous Irish countryside, the beautiful Dana Wynter, and a sly cameo appearance by director John Huston. This film remains a pleasant diversion after all these years.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Even the flaws don't detract from this gem.
This film is so highly regarded it doesn't need another rave review. Even the mistakes are well known: The door that opens in the wrong direction; Fred MacMurray's wedding ring and his reference to "The Philadelphia Story" (1940). (This film purports to take place in 1938); Barbara Stanwyck's blonde wig, etc. Less talked about is the sad irony that, unbeknown to Billy Wilder at the time, his mother perished in the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp while he was making this film. "Double Indemnity's" depraved characters and their cruel machinations somewhat echo on a vastly smaller scale what was then going on in Europe. The film marks a high point in the careers of the three main actors, especially Stanwyck, who set a benchmark for femmes fatales that has never been topped.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Not Impressed in 1971, Less So Today
Viewing this film nearly half a century after the fact, it looks extremely dated and, dare I say, amateurish. About the only thing Kubrick got right was his depiction of an increasingly violent society. His mind-numbing emphasis on sexual iconography comes across as schoolboy prurience. Surprising, in light of the finesse with which he handled the subject of sex in "Lolita." It's clear "A Clockwork Orange" was intended to shock and break boundaries in mainstream movies. Mike Nichols did a much better job of it in 1971 with "Carnal Knowledge" which holds up beautifully today and has a lot more depth to it.
Match Point (2005)
Luck Would Have It
Woody Allen here provides a first-rate morality tale. This film belongs near the top of his filmography, alongside other serious outings as "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Cassandra's Dream." Though the plot borrows heavily from George Stevens' "A Place In The Sun," the endings go in completely different directions. Allen sets the action against superb upper-class locations including the distinctive Gherkin building, adding to the film's visual appeal. Cast is outstanding, from the headliners down to the smallest bit parts. Pacing is deliberate and suspenseful. "Match Point" is a thought-provoking experience you'll ponder long after it's over.
The Boy Friend (1971)
Ken Russell and Busby Berkeley Make Odd Bedfellows
This film is an oddity in the outlandish Ken Russell catalogue. Now seen on DVD in its full length, this joyful spoof collapses under its own weight by the time it's over. Unfortunate, because there's so much going for it: Twiggy and Tommy Tune both rise to the occasion. The cast of Russell regulars excels in their characterizations of third-rate theatrical denizens. The big production numbers are indeed eye-popping, so much so that it's easy to overlook Peter Maxwell Davies' superbly arranged music. Tony Walton's set designs and Shirley Russell's costumes are top-notch. So what's the problem? While the comic backstage machinations are spot on, the love story becomes tiresome and maudlin and brings down the pace considerably. Some of Russell's fantasias (the Grecian-inspired escapade, the colorful elves) are out of place, taking up too much time and distracting from the flow of things. Though "The Boy Friend" is a polished work of art, Russell can't help casting a jaundiced eye over the entire production. Viewers will either love it or hate it. Proceed at your own risk.
The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)
Living Well Is The Best Revenge
Exceeding expectations, "The Revenge of Frankenstein" is a classy Hammer production. While it purports to take the archetypal Frankenstein tale a step farther, it basically rehashes the same premise of resurrecting life in a dead body and the ensuing consequences. Peter Cushing's commanding presence, Terence Fisher's assured direction, along with fine sets and costumes (better than in many other Hammer films) elevate this to a higher level. It's no masterpiece, but it's worthwhile entertainment for those who like this sort of thing.
Pacific Heights (1990)
Go Fly a Kite
Close to thirty years after it was made, "Pacific Heights" remains an entertaining thriller. Its lack of cell phones and computers is outweighed by a plot that still resonates today. The story has lots of twists and turns, some more outlandish than others, but they're what make the film so watchable and fun. Michael Keaton usually gets all the acclaim for his characterization of a mad sociopath, but Melanie Griffith (looking beautiful pre- plastic surgery) turns in an excellent leading performance as well. Matthew Modine's contribution is not to be overlooked (love his little kite factory). All the casting is on target, including Laurie Metcalf as a lawyer and Tippi Hedren as a socialite. What separates this film from others in the genre is John Schlesinger's astute direction. Schlesinger (who makes a cameo appearance in an elevator) wasn't known to direct many thrillers (Marathon Man) but his keen eye on human behavior (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust) elevates this film to a higher level.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
C'est Si Bon
This movie gets better with each repeat viewing. Clever concept of romanticizing the past and finding happiness in the present. Owen Wilson is not prime leading man material, but he does an excellent job as the Woody Allen stand-in (You can picture Woody in the part fifty years ago). Even better is Rachel McAdams as the fiancee from Hell. She's simply hilarious constantly cutting down Gil (Wilson). Key to the success of all Woody Allen films is the casting, and here he nails every last one, including the amusing celebrity lookalikes. The young Picasso is particularly on target, as is Adrien Brody as Dali. The gag about Luis Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel" is a sublime "in" joke. Great location photography of beautiful Paris. Still can't figure out how they filmed Versailles without the mobs of tourists who swarm the place daily. Definitely one of Woody Allen's best efforts.
The Haunting (1963)
High Hopes Quickly Dashed
What fun to sit down to a scary, haunted house movie, especially one in atmospheric black and white! Well, the house doesn't disappoint, but the film sure does. Long and drawn out with no payoff and little suspense. Worst of all is having to listen to whiny Julie Harris. She simply becomes more unbearable as the film progresses. Rating this two stars: One for the moody, sharp-focus photography, and one for Claire Bloom, the only interesting character. A "Wise" move would have been to build the film around her instead of that obnoxious Eleanor.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
That Darn Key
This is such a fun movie - a cozy little thriller with a British accent - how could you not love it? But one thing that always bothers me is the key. The plot hinges on the whereabouts of the key and is instrumental in exposing the guilty party. So why didn't Ray Milland's character simply make a duplicate key? He went to such painstaking detail devising the perfect murder, you would think a duplicate key would be a no-brainer. It kind of subverts an otherwise clever premise. Still a very enjoyable Hitchcock outing.
The Great Race (1965)
They Cut Out The Best Part!!!
This is an admittedly overlong movie, rather bloated at times, so I don't think a couple of cuts would hurt. But the Warner DVD left out the best part, the reason I bought it in the first place, namely Natalie Wood singing yet another exquisite Mancini/Mercer song, "The Sweetheart Tree!" Frankly, because the film is acted in the broad, slapstick style of early silent films, it would probably play better with no dialog at all except for the lovely, wistful ballad that almost rivals M/M's masterpiece, "Moon River." So sad.
I loved the one nugget of much needed humor somewhere in the middle of this pretentious one-way talkathon. It's the scene where Bibi Andersson breaks something then sweeps it up with a broom and dustpan. She sits down nearby and spots a shard of glass that she missed. She deliberately leaves it there for barefooted Liv Ullmann to step on. Sure enough, for one brief respite, hilarity ensues, along with the one word of dialog that Ullmann had to memorize. I could have done without the remaining 84 minutes of glum posturing and dated pseudo psychology. I also wasn't thrilled by the callous use of the famous Holocaust photograph of a young Jewish boy being marched away by the Nazis. Bergman should have known better, but this was before political incorrectness became a capital crime.
Man's Favorite Sport? (1964)
Calling Doris Day
Not exactly a high point in the distinguished career of director Howard Hawks. This 1964 film looks more like a Doris Day battle-of-the-sexes outing than Hawks' own 1930s screwball comedy style. In fact, I kept hoping Doris would show up to save this near disaster. Paula Prentiss was honing her "kooky" persona (Somewhat better achieved in the following year's "What's New Pussycat?") but she has zero chemistry with Rock Hudson. As for Rock, without his able foil (Doris), his attempt at comedy falls flat. The humor is forced, the premise belabored and the whole thing goes on far too long.
Inside Daisy Clover (1965)
The public and the critics weren't wrong when they shunned this film upon its initial release. It's pure Hollywood hokum, along the lines of other wannabe Tinseltown exposés like "The Legend of Lylah Clare." Nor is it a high point in Natalie Wood's acting career. Her performance is highly overwrought. Her wide-eyed innocence and youthful defiance never quite ring true. We prefer to remember her in films like "West Side Story" and "Love With The Proper Stranger" where she showed more genuine sensitivity. This film has all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop.
La strada (1954)
While Giulietta Masina usually gets all the acclaim for her Chaplin-esque performance in "La Strada," it's Anthony Quinn's outstanding turn as the earthy, brutal Zampano who finds redemption at last that powers this film. I don't quite understand how these international productions come together, with everyone speaking different languages (How do they hold conversations if they don't know what the other person is saying?). The inevitable confusion certainly doesn't show up in the final film. "La Strada" is heartfelt, poignant and, for all its humor, surprisingly downbeat. Probably Fellini's best film, more engaging than his later self-indulgent fantasy romps ("Juliet of the Spirits," "8 1/2") that have become dated so quickly. "La Strada" has a timeless quality that transcends generations.
Body Heat (1981)
Baby Boomer Brilliance
Since the heyday of Film Noir in the 1940s/1950s few films have succeeded in capturing the essence of the genre. "Body Heat" is an exception. It not only presents a dark tale of greed, duplicity and murder, it goes one better - it does it in full color and with a modern sensibility (1940s femmes fatales never had to take off their clothes). Brilliant script and direction by Lawrence Kasdan, stellar performances by the lead actors, sensuous surroundings, and a hypnotic score by John Barry. In 1981, when this film was released, Baby Boomers were coming into their own and could relate to this updated take on films from previous eras. It's unlikely this film would be made the same way today - younger generations have a frame of reference far removed from this more cerebral approach to entertainment.
Imitation of Life (1959)
This film is quite extraordinary. You think you're watching a ridiculous soap opera when it suddenly delivers an unexpected one-two punch. Lana Turner is a glamour puss fighting off unwelcome advances en route to becoming the toast of Broadway. Daughter Sandra Dee is an airhead who can't get her mother's attention until she tries to hijack her boyfriend. It's both ludicrous and laughable. Meanwhile Susan Kohner is busy stealing the show in what I find to be the strongest condemnation of racism ever committed to film. Compare it to a lumbering movie like "To Kill A Mockingbird" where its message of racial injustice is forced down your throat. Here, it sneaks up on you before you know what hit you! The deathbed scene is merely a prelude to the waterworks of the finale. Credit goes to all involved in creating such an absorbing, powerful, entertaining and ultimately profound experience.